Idiot Boy

by Tim Wenzell

Edward Fizzle was up to his waist in snow and searching for the tractor keys when he noticed a sizable chunk of ice fall from the gutter of the barn and strike one of his father's cows directly on the head. His father had just plowed the pasture, and the cow, whose skull had punctured from the sharp missile, wobbled in a shaky gait across a wide patch of ice. It turned and flashed the whites of it eyes at Edward, and, in a fatal squeal, it crashed sideways into the fence and slid like an upended ship to the frozen ground.

"Well I'll be as damned as anybody," Edward called out. He stopped his search for the tractor keys, ready to leap in several long hurdles out of the snow bank to help the poor fallen creature. Then he eyed the back door of the house: his father would be out to inspect the cow, and Edward had to have the keys or he would be beaten again with the belt and sent to the cold loft for another long night. He retraced his deep footprints to the barn, watching for a gleam of steel that might shine up and deliver him from another punishment. He had circled the barn several times, and now he stood and looked at the infinite trail of footprints circling round and round. "What in hell was I thinking?" he asked to the dead cow. "How could I be like I am?"

Edward looked up at the ice hanging from the barn's roof. He was certain that he had loosened some icicles up by stamping his feet into the snow as he tramped around the edges of the barn. "I warmed the earth and shook them up and killed that damned cow," he whispered in a frosty ball of air. He feared that his father would reason the same thing when he saw the idiotic circles, so he began to scoop handfuls of snow from a fresh bank to cover his footprints, working at such a frantic pace that he began to gasp for air. All the while he watched the back door as he shoveled new snow into his tracks. He continued until he reached the back of the barn.

In his reasoning, Edward did not consider that the sun, which had begun to thaw the ice, had actually loosened the weapon from the gutter. His father would no doubt see the water dripping from the ends of the icicles above him and in his infinite unidiotic wisdom he would know immediately what natural elements had conspired to kill his cow. In truth, he would never have considered blaming his son for this one; there would be no reason at all to send him to the loft.

Edward had built a considerable coating of sweat in his frantic cover-up, which had soaked the clothes beneath his winter coat. He stopped to gather more winter air into his lungs. "Oh Holy Jesus," he suddenly exclaimed. "I've covered my tracks and now I'll never find those keys." His heart raced as the back door slammed, as his father plunged in deep leaps across the field.. "Shelley, Shelley," he called. He made his way through the snow, then walked across the frozen pasture to the dead cow lying along the fence. He knelt before the still animal, ran his gloves along the already-cold hide, and turned back to look at Edward, who had just dropped his handfuls of snow.

"Icicle killed her," Edward called out. He pointed nervously to the barn roof. "Saw the whole thing. Came down like a rocket." "Get over here you idiot," his father screamed. Edward retraced his last uncovered prints, his eyes down in one last search. He stepped across the plowed land, feeling as if he had ventured into a ring in which he would have to confront his father for some bogus championship. He looked to the farmhouse for his mother in the hopes that the match could be warded off by the smell of pot roast or something.

"You stood out here and let Shelley die?" His father got up from his knees and moved closer; Edward guarded his face with a nervous revolution of hands.

"Wasn't much I could do," he replied. "Snow was deep, thing came down like a rocket."

"Rocket schmocket." He whacked Edward across the back of his skull and dislodged his cap. "What were you doing out by the barn anyway? I thought I told you to get the drive plowed."

Now Edward envisioned the tractor, still covered in snow, parked along the fence just behind the barn. He was going to have to explain the lost keys now and prepare his bed in the loft for another cold night. He remembered the last time he had slept there, just three nights ago, when the wind whipped up a ferocious noise all through the rafters and sent him into a long fit of nightmares from which faceless men with pitchforks, fanged farm animals, and an army of monster fathers arose. Besides all that, his hands and feet, despite being buried in straw as he thrust about in his sleep, had nearly frozen. He could feel the fresh bandages covering his frostbite sores. The gauze slid along the perspiration beneath his gloves and filled the rims of his eyes with tears. His father raised a hand again as the icy wind whipped his exposed face. He stepped away from the carcass.

"Getting to it," Edward said. "It's just that the cow dying kind of scared me is all." He moved out of range of his father's slap and stepped back into the snow toward the other side of the barn. Now what? He searched in silent prayer for the miracle of the discovered keys, for a little hole in the snow into which he might plunge his hands and retrieve his benediction. He looked to the sky in hopes that Providence would arrive on a beam of light and the sound of a jingle. Then he realized the hopelessness of his search as he crunched through the virgin snow on his way to the parked tractor. He could feel his father's eyes watching him, the same way in which he could feel deer watching him through underbrush as he loaded his rifle on hunting trips. His father walked out to watch him circle the barn, start the tractor, and head on down to the foot of the drive to begin three hours worth of plowing. Turning, he caught his father's frosty breath along the fence, as he stood, frozen still like an undaunted deer, with hands on hips.

Edward jumped into the tractor seat and pretended to fumble for the keys in his coat. He gripped the wheel and slid down into the cold seat so that the encrusted snow soaked through his pants. He looked straight ahead, hoping that his father would tire of the cold and make a return to the warm kitchen, where he would inform Edward's mother of the dead animal and prepare to carve it up: he would need to get it out of there before it began to rot, peel the good meat away himself with one of the long blades from the barn.

"Come on, come on, go back inside," Edward willed to the air. Then he heard the door slam across the fields, and he hunched down into the seat, sighed a moment's relief, and slid his hand, out of habit, toward the empty ignition.

He wanted to go back inside himself; the aroma of a roast had taken to the air upon his father's opening of the door, and his stomach seemed to be pulling him from the seat toward the porch light which his mother had just flicked on. If she had the courage, she would no doubt have shouted out to him that dinner was ready and to never mind the unplowed driveway. If she had the courage she would have lectured his father, as Edward made his way eagerly through the snow, on the importance of a warm fire and a hot meal for their son, that a full stomach and a happy heart were more important things than a cleared driveway. With courage she would have sat his father down and told him their son could plow the driveway tomorrow if he could get up a little earlier, and then make sure that he had second and third helpings. She would have said all of that if she had the courage. At that, Edward might have had the courage to point out to the high drifts and say simply 'I lost the keys somewhere out there. It's just one of those things.' Then he'd watch as his mother warded off his father's tirade, and with maternal precision, affirm the importance of securing valuable things. And Edward would have assured the both of them, as he finished his hot meal, that it would not happen again.

The biting cold came up in a wall of wind and slammed into Edward's face with the force of one of his father's slaps. He wouldn't be able to sit in the seat like this for very long; he would need to think up an excuse before he made his way back to the house. No matter what he came up with, it wouldn't do. Fury would fill the house; shouts and slamming and cursing would shake the foundation. In the aftermath of slamming doors in which his mother would retire to her room, he would be sent across the field, with no light at all, to spend another long night in the barn. The frostbite sores glowed hot beneath his wet gloves and reminded him of his unpromising future.

The cold had come up suddenly, and he shivered both from the chill of the evening air and from the fear that he might not make it through the night this time. "This cold this early in the day means below zero for sure tonight," he said into the wind.

Out beyond the fence, where the road dipped into the snow-filled valley, Edward gazed in an unbroken stare and formed a plan. It was not much of a plan really, more an alternative to what awaited him on his return to the house. He found, in the sudden drop of light, that he could no longer bear to slink to his father's chair and, with his head hung in shame, inform him of another misdeed. He could no longer stand in the awkward silence of seconds turned hours and await the back of his father's hand, delivered out of an explosion of rage followed by his unworthy punishment. One more time he would watch, out of his tearful eyes, as his mother made her way to the back of the house to shut her bedroom door. Mostly, though, he could not bear to be called "idiot boy" one more time. That, more than the sting of his father's slap or the frostbite descending on his extremities, was what he could no longer take. That word, 'idiot,' sank down into every fiber of his being like slow poison. 'Idiot' struck marrow and pushed him like a tack into the wall. All he wanted was to rise above that, to go on for a time without committing one single act of stupidity, or to not be reprimanded for some senseless act he might invariably commit. He wanted to simply be understood, to be called 'idiot boy' never again. But Edward knew that his father's anger would never cease, that his mother would never find the fortitude to open her door and step in. So he gazed long and hard into the valley with its snow and its wind, and he decided he would rather go down there instead.

When the sun dipped behind the branches, the temperature plummeted ten degrees and set the sky to a metallic blue, much like the color of his father's truck. Just as Edward slid off the tractor seat and made his way in heavy footsteps through the snow beyond the fence, he could feel the icy air dropping like water inside his clothes. He wished he could go back to the house for a new pair of dry gloves and a scarf, so he could warm himself by the stove and get the chill out before he went off. He hurried his footsteps away from the property, however. Without the sound of the tractor cutting through the air, his father would be out at any moment with his rage and his punishment.

Edward, in his haste, tumbled down the hill on the other side of the road. His feet kicked up the powder and his heel caught on a buried boulder, sending him in a roll to the bottom some forty feet below. And then he was on his feet again and running as fast as he could through the deep snow, for he thought he had heard the slam of the back door, and he knew he needed to run: if his father caught him covered in snow at the bottom of the hill, on the other side of the fence, off the property and in the valley, he would surely beat him into a black-and-blue pulp. That, together with the lost keys, and the lingering thought of one of his best cows dead, would be too much. So Edward kept running and he pumped his legs through the deep snow until he finally fell in a heap several hundred yards into the valley.

He had to gather his breath and think about his next move, so he sat, with many huge question marks, upon a snow-covered log. He was far enough away from the house so that he did not fear his father's sudden appearance out of nowhere, and he welcomed the moment's relief. In his delirium of sudden change, a fog of futures rolled across his brain in a rapid drift, never stopping to solidify anything concrete. Instead, he beheld only a glimpse of hopeful summer lawns and rooms full of love -- somewhere, he guessed, in a strange house, on the other side of the valley. Some smiles, some meals prepared with care, some freshly washed sheets into which he could peacefully dream. On the other side of the valley, in another season, absent of mistake.

He listened for a sound and considered the many times that his father had appeared out of nowhere. When Edward had overflowed the toilet, he had turned and found his father there in the bathroom doorway, appearing without a sound, phantom-like, his hand already raised. At the dinner table one night Edward had filled his pockets with his mother's burned steak, and was caught, as if by magic, emptying them below the coffee grounds in a garbage pail. Even at two years old, just after he had finished a doodle in red crayon on the nursery room wall, his father had walked in on air and slapped him clear across the room, sending the crayon into a spray of crumbled wax across the floor. As the images froze like broken icicles, the haunting presence of his father became so thick, even in the valley, even half a mile away, that it got Edward's legs moving after he caught only a few breaths.

Fear made him forget about his cold body, which had begun, slowly and unknowingly, to succumb to the elements. It was not long -- perhaps two miles into his journey to nowhere through the dead underbrush -- that Edward lost the feeling in his legs and hands. His head swam in a warm sea of fear, bobbing in disillusion to the sound of a slamming door miles away, to the crunch of snow on a hilltop unseen, to the advancing footsteps over boulders and logs toward his running form, phantom footsteps impaled upon the dead valley. The ghost advanced, quicker than the wind, quicker than a thousand painful memories and a thousand needles of pain through his bandaged hands. "He is coming... I had better keep moving," he willed to the black valley air. "I cannot stop for a very long time."

Somewhere out past Abigail's farm Edward fell. A large toppled tree had risen suddenly out of the snow-covered valley like a monolith. Its large dead stumps, under the pale moon, looked much like the raised arms of his father, exaggerated and gnarled as they twisted in an organic descent toward his shivering body. In a moment of panic, he attempted to leap the monstrosity, but his numbed legs could not carry him up and over. Fully upended, his feet slid along the thick snow-covered bark and sent his head spinning into a web of branches, where he fell into a long, dreamy daze.

He laughed finally; he had been lying motionless in the snow for nearly ten minutes, but finally he laughed. "You're not my wicked horrible father," he shouted. "You're nothing but a dead, stupid tree, and I'm stupid for not noticing that you're a dead, stupid tree." He sighed and watched his frosty breath rise toward the moon. "I'm afraid of nothing. You hear that you dead, stupid tree? I'm afraid of nothing."

Edward tried to get up. He had every intention of making his way back across the valley, back across his frantic tracks, back up the hill and across the road, past the blasted tractor and over the dark fields. He was going to burst through that back door. He was going to warm his fingers and then tell his father he was tired of being an idiot. He was going to tell his father to stop all the shit and just plain let him live, that no human being deserved his sort of treatment. He would order his mother to his side and, with her arms draped around him, she would finally come out and tell her husband much the same thing. "Leave our poor boy be -- he's trying very hard to just be." Edward had the whole scene, in one moment of enormous clarity, perfectly mapped out. But he could not move his legs, and an incredible warmth began to seep through his toes as he turned his eyes to the moon and back again.

Then he laughed again -- not at the father-like tree which had upended him, nor at the crystal vision of confronting his father as it deteriorated to ridiculous fantasy -- but at the gleaming metal he beheld, just at the edge of his trouser waist, in the failing moonlight. "The keys," he said. "They must have slipped down into my pants somehow. I must have shaken them out when I fell." In frantic delight, he tried to maneuver his hands downward to snatch the keys and close his fingers around them. But the cold biting air had numbed his extremities to uselessness. After a long struggle during which he exerted every ounce of thawed muscle to reach those keys, his arms finally fell limp along the bark of the cold, dead tree. Edward smiled in warm surrender. "I am not the idiot that I thought," he said in an assured whisper to the invisible ghost he was quite sure hovered within earshot. "A hole in my pocket...a freaky thing that could have happened to anyone. The important thing is, I didn't lose them." Now he considered that perhaps he was no idiot all along, and that it was only bad luck which had plagued him the whole of his life, that a backed-up toilet and a burned steak and long streaks of crayon across the nursery walls could have happened to just about anyone. All along, he thought in a frosty ball, all he needed was a pocket without a hole. Just a lousy stinking pocket without a hole. He laid back and watched the moon become swallowed by clouds. He wished he could have gotten up to start that tractor, to fill the night with sound, to plow hard into a wall of snow and forever drown out his father's shouts. Yes, clear the drive of snow and fill the night with sound: that was his only wish now. That was all he wanted as he drifted into his warm sleep.

©2002 by Tim Wenzell

Tim Wenzell teaches English at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. He has published a novel, Absent Children, as well as a number of short stories, poems, and essays in various literary magazines.

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